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There are those of us who – no matter how much we succeed in life – will always feel as though we somehow fluked our way into that position.
Regardless of how competent you are, how demonstrably knowledgeable you are and how good you are at your job, this self-doubt gnaws and nags, slowly destroying any confidence you do possess.
I learned, too late, that this phenomenon is colloquially known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’. According to various studies and papers, it can be a good thing if it’s kept under control. Unlike its opposite disorder – Dunning-Kruger syndrome – it provides a sort of self-checking mechanism, to stop you becoming overconfident.
But when it is not kept in check, it can create problems, as well as exacerbating existing ones.
As a high-flying woman working in an industry dominated by men, it ended up destroying me. Imposter Syndrome led to self-doubt, which led to insomnia. Insomnia heightened the self-doubt, which sowed the seeds of depression. Paranoia and isolation at work – combined with constantly bathing in an oppressive, low-grade sea of sexism and ‘boys club’ism – watered the depression until it germinated into full-blown psychosis. In the end, I had a very public, and very embarrassing, mental breakdown at work.
When I was given my marching orders from the firm, I went home and took all the pills in my medicine cabinet, until I felt nauseous from the weight of them in my gut.
Ironically, a Jehovah’s witness saw me through the front window, lying in a pool of frothy vomit, and called an ambulance.
After my stomach was pumped and I was released from hospital, my relatives had me put into psychiatric care, where I spent the next eighteen months fighting my inner demons with the help of various medications.
Eventually they couldn’t hold me any longer, so released me; but I had no home, no money and certainly no job. The stigma of being a mental health patient seemed to be as bad – if not worse – than having been in prison.
“At least with prisoners,” I head a man say outside a café, “you know they’ve served their time and probably learned their lesson. With crazy people, you never know when it’s all going to flare up again – but you know that it will.”
Eventually I got a job as a cleaner on the night shift, and my fractured life began to gain some semblance of normality again.
It wasn’t all drudge and boredom; once I could afford the cheapest smartphone on the market, I stole some noise-cancelling headphones. Those, coupled with several gigs of pirated music, made my job a little more bearable.
The other thing that kept my mind occupied was the buildings themselves.
Our crew did a lot of old government and ex-government buildings, which were built on top of much older buildings still. I’d finish up as quickly as I could, then use my remaining forty minutes to explore the basements of these ancient places.
Even though I often didn’t have swipe-card access to those areas, I had worked in an office for most of my adult life. Finding the IT area, then finding a contractor’s access card was easy enough; and that gave me virtually free reign to explore.
There are some pretty odd and creepy things under those old buildings; in those basements built on top of basements. I’m no urban explorer, but I found some stuff that you horror-seekers would practically orgasm over.
Still medicated for depression and anxiety, my dulled emotional responses only allowed me to distantly register how scary these places should probably be. I only dimly processed that poking around in dusty governmental sepulchres in the dead of night would usually provoke fear and incontinence, not mild interest.
My first find was the Mirror Room. Three levels below ground and accessed via a twisting, narrow corridor of pipes and concrete, it took me by surprise when my torch beam split and reflected upon contact with the walls.
The floor was old, polished wood, and one whole wall was floor-to-ceiling mirrors. A piano filled with mice sat in one corner – an eerie plinking and scratching filled the air as the rodents fled from my torch – and a pile of ancient and bloody children’s ballet shoes sat in one corner.
I guess at some point this had been a sort of secret, subterranean, practice room – perhaps for the children of government workers.
There were other places that were equally as strange, some more or less sinister. There was the Boiler Plate Room, the Dwarf Shaft, the Broken Church and the String Hallway.
But none of those compared to the Black Paths.
My torch battery had been running low, and I was about to return to the surface when I spotted the tinderbox. It was an old tin thing; round, and with a lid upon which was fixed a candle-holder, containing a single yellowed candle.
I’d seen a picture of such a thing when I was kid, in some old storybook about miners. Curious, I opened it up to inspect the interior.
Inside were several twists of hemp, some foul-smelling paper, two sulphur-tipped matches, a flint and a D-shaped piece of iron – the striker. Of course, I did what anyone would do; I tried to light the candle. When I initially failed, I turned to my phone for help, but this deep under the layers of concrete and pipes, there was no signal penetration at all.
The paper ended up being the key. It must have been soaked in something flammable, as the sparks struck from the iron and flint made it smoulder. Touching a match to it, I blew until the heat made the wood catch, then transferred the spluttering sulphur-blue flame to the wick of the candle.
Holding my new light aloft, I nearly dropped it immediately as the fat, faintly bluish flame illuminated the huge black door right beside me.
There had been no such door there when I entered.
It was wood, that much was certain; but the only wood I had ever seen with such a dark lustre was ebony - and that was far too rare and expensive to be found in crumbling basements.
A touch of my hand sent it gliding smoothly open, whispering over polished concrete on the other side, where a plain and unmarked corridor ran off into the darkness, straight as a laser.
Curiosity got the better of me, and before I could second-guess my decision, I began to walk the first of the Black Paths.
The corridor ran for perhaps a kilometre, then ended in another black door, the same as the first. A gentle push opened it, and with a curious feeling of elation, I realised I was standing in a darkened boiler room. It was the one under my cheap and decrepit apartment block.
That was impossible, since my apartment was a ninety-minute train ride from where I worked.
When I turned on the lights of the boiler room, the candle flame snapped out of existence – and so did the door.
What on earth had I found?
It didn’t take me very long to figure out how it worked; with the aid of the tinderbox and candle I could illuminate the door into existence. And then, instead of losing three hours a day to travel, I could be at work within ten minutes.
In turn, that meant I could sleep in, piss around on the internet, have breakfast at a cheap café, or just sit somewhere and read. For the first time since my infamous psychotic break and subsequent institutionalisation, I felt like my life was changing for the better.
My colleagues and boss noticed the difference in my mood and I was given a little more responsibility, but while things were good on that front, I had made another important discovery.
The tinderbox worked in more than one place.
There were doors under other buildings, too, and those also led back to my apartment. No matter where I went, I had a short walk home through those eerie, empty corridors – and I started using them during my breaks to go home and masturbate. Why masturbation, you might ask?
Well, with the growth in confidence had come a drop in my medications – and without so many drugs in my system, my libido began to return with a vengeance.
I also noticed that the lifeless concrete corridors had changed slightly; no longer still and empty, a faint breeze gusted through them, seemingly speeding my race home to my laptop and my vibrator.
I think, for the first time in years, I was actually enjoying my life.
And it was only going to get better from there.
My promotion to shift manager meant more money, which I used primarily to experience a vice that had lain dormant for a long time; food. Being dirt-poor doesn’t give you many culinary options; rice had been a staple for so long now that I reflexively ignored most aisles of the supermarket.
Then, on one walk home through the chilly darkness of the tinderbox tunnel, thinking about groceries and edible luxuries, I emerged somewhere new.
The ancient and mouldering basement of a supermarket warehouse.
Cold from my jaunt through the tunnel, which had taken longer than usual, I stared at the massive crates and pallets of foodstuffs surrounding me, washed by the flickering flame of the never-diminishing candle.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what I did next. I loaded up on as many luxuries as I could carry; and over the next few days I made more and more return trips, until my cupboards were overflowing with all the nice things I’d been missing for the past few years.
I didn’t even mind the extra distance of those tunnels; not having to pay for food anymore was worth any minor inconvenience.
Off my medication completely now, I started at the gym and worked on shedding the flab that had settled on my body through the years of my drug-induced half-life. My old clarity of mind began to return, along with my ambition. I felt that the tinderbox had been given to me as a gift by some otherworldly power, a kind of recompense for the suffering I had endured.
Figuring out how to manipulate the darkened pathways came easily and naturally now; I could simply fix clearly in my mind what I wanted, and the Black Paths would take me there.
With the return of my old sharpness and wit came a need to have my old lifestyle back. I knew I would never be a high-flyer earning six figures again, but I could at least live like one.
Through the faintly sparkling concrete and curiously warm walls of the tunnels, I found dingy warehouse basements full of clothes, makeup, jewellery, shoes and expensive beauty products. I felt like a human version of Fantastic Mister Fox, using my clever tunnels to deprive gluttons and greedy executives of their undeserved goods.
But one night I saw a light coming down the tunnel in the other direction, and everything changed.
I ran from the light, thinking it was a security guard who had found my door, who had figured out how the thief kept getting in. When I reached my side, I pushed the ebony door shut and pinched out the wick. I heard a distant curse just before the door vanished.
I didn’t use the tunnels again for almost a month.
However, the allure of my new lifestyle was just too heady to resist. I opened the tinderbox and studied the interior – where the same sight always greeted me; a few twists of hemp, some touchpaper, two sulphur matches and a flint and steel.
Grimly, I lit the candle, closed the box, then pushed open the black door and started off down the tunnel.
The light bobbing in the distance sparked immediate fear – but then I noticed a singular detail I had missed before. It was the same faintly bluish light as that from my own candle.
Incredulous, I walked towards the source, the thrill creeping up my spine as each step brought our weaving, flickering flames closer together.
It was a man, dressed just as smartly as myself. His eyes were hollow and bleary with fatigue.
“Oh god, help me,” he cried out, “I can’t find the door. The tunnels just go on and on, please, get me out of here!”
In his shaking hand he clutched a tinderbox, the twin of mine; but his candle had burned low – so low that it was nearly out. Mine was still almost as fresh as the day I found it. With a snarl like a desperate animal, he lunged for my own light, snagging it from my surprised fingers.
Then he ran, dropping his own tinderbox at my feet.
I laughed then, because there was nowhere to go. It was a straight corridor, and in his tired state, he had no chance of outrunning me. But when the flame on his dropped tinderbox winked out, I knew fear like I’d never felt before.
Dull golden-orange light began to leak through the hot walls. I could feel them growing thin, as though the stone was becoming insubstantial, and something was trying to break through. Distant howls of abject agony echoed through the changing corridor, and with a dreadful certainty that something terribly wrong was happening, I ran for my life.
When I caught up with the man, and my tinderbox, he was stumbling and weeping.
I snatched the light from his hand and pushed him to the ground.
“You can’t avoid it forever,” he said, “once you go deep enough, you can’t make your way back. Then the candle will burn out and you’ll be damned to Sheol forever.”
He was on his knees, weeping and shaking his head. A pool of golden light had appeared around him on the hot stone floor.
“What’s happening?” I asked, the syllables trembling off my tongue.
“The inevitable,” he replied, then hands of molten gold reared up from the circle and pulled him through the floor, with a terrible hissing of superheated metal meeting mortal flesh.
With a final wail of wordless pain, the man was gone.
I really tried to stop using the tinderbox.
Cut off from my primary sources of pleasure, my mood began to suffer, and the depression surfaced again. I promised myself I’d use the tinderbox sparingly, that I’d spend as little time on the Black Paths as possible. But even with the gold-drowned, agonised face of the man etched into my mind, I couldn’t stop myself.
I began to grow angry at my own weakness, frustrated and irrational. My candle was still intact and barely spent; for all I knew it would last a lifetime. Maybe when the man found his, it was already nearly gone, and he just wasted it exploring lengthy pathways to improbable places.
It was then that I began to notice the words scratched into the tunnel walls. They were not in English, and technology seemed to freeze and die on the Black Paths, so I had to copy them by hand and attempt to translate them on the surface. They were written in Hebrew, I quickly discovered, and when I took a Hebrew dictionary down with me to try and figure them out, they chilled me far worse than any threat of re-institutionalisation or public meltdown.
According to the story carved along the walls, I was damned.
“You cannot stop using it past the forth circle,” the words told me, “it is worse than addiction, worse than any vice ever created. The tinderbox can give you anything you want – except escape from the Black Paths of Sheol.”
The writing rambled on about immortal souls and damnation for some time, before it gained clarity again,
“…and so eventually the doors will cease to appear and the flame will burn out, then the Black Path will fade, and you will be dragged through to your final resting place in the appropriate circle of Hell. Once you are gone, the tinderbox will slowly work its way back to the surface again, where it will find another to corrupt, and begin its journey anew.”
I remember sitting in shock, reading the final words:
“But I have learned, through another I met on the paths, that if you take the tinderbox down, as far down as possible – to the final circle – it will be trapped there forever. And so I, Rabbi Lemuel, will take this accursed tinderbox into the bowels of Hell, unto the throne of Satan himself. In so doing, I know I will damn my immortal soul for all eternity. But it must be done. May the Lord accept this paltry sacrifice to save the legions who would have followed me.
I pray with everything I have left that you do the same.”
The tinderbox sits on the bedside table, battered, old and seemingly so innocent. I haven’t used it for two weeks, but it gnaws at my mind, filling my head with thoughts of boundless luxuries, justifiable revenge, sweet perversions and luscious treachery. It tells me I could have my old life back. It tells me I can avoid the fate of both the gold-drowned man and the Rabbi – because I am different, because I am so much better than anyone else.
So I sit here now, holding the striker in my hand, a sulphur match at the ready.
I just hope that I can make it to the final circle of Hell before the flame burns out.